By Sam Bojarski
BROOKLYN – For Aliette Beldor, who owned the former Alouette Beauty Salon on Nostrand Avenue, the creation of the Little Haiti Cultural and Business District brought recognition to Haitian community members like her.
But while she supports the initiative for this reason, the cost of doing business in the neighborhood continues to increase.
“All the business owners in this neighborhood suffer because of the rent,” she said.
It’s been just over two years since New York City council passed a resolution designating a portion of central Brooklyn in Flatbush as Little Haiti. Multiple Haitian-American elected officials and community leaders have supported the initiative, designed to promote a sense of belonging, facilitate economic development and tourism, as well as to preserve and celebrate the numerous Haitian institutions in the area.
But plans for Little Haiti have been slow to get off the ground, partly due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Economic trends also continue to threaten the affordability of the neighborhood, for some Haitian residents and business owners.
District 42 Assemblymember Rodneyse Bichotte and then-Councilmember Jumaane Williams were key early supporters who led the effort to designate Little Haiti in 2018. Farah Louis, who now represents Council District 45, currently supports Little Haiti BK.
The Little Haiti district extends roughly from Parkside Avenue to Avenue H, and from East 16th Street to Brooklyn Avenue.
Within the district, two streets have been named after Haitian revolutionary heroes. Since the summer of 2018, a section of Rogers Avenue, from Farragut Road to Eastern Parkway, has been named Jean-Jacques Dessalines Boulevard. A section of Nostrand Avenue was also co-named Toussaint L’Ouverture Boulevard, although it first earned the designation in the early 2000s.
Little Haiti’s existence did not come about without controversy. Community leaders had already created a Little Caribbean district in Flatbush during September of 2017. Portions of the two districts now overlap.
Shelley Worrell of CaribBeing, who led the effort to create Little Caribbean, did not return a call requesting comment.
“You could have a Little Caribbean and you could have Little Haiti, you know, it’s not a zero sum game,” said Jackson Rockingster, of the Haitian-American Business Network (HABNET).
“We’re one of the very, very few islands that’s not Anglo-Caribbean,” he added, noting the differences that characterize Haitians, including language.
Rockingster co-chairs the Little Haiti BK coalition, along with Regine Roumain, of Haiti Cultural Exchange. While the coalition has plans for cultural programming, placemaking, promoting affordable housing and more, he said achieving them will take more time and resources.
In October of 2018, months after Little Haiti earned its formal designation, more than 50 community members shared their needs at a town hall meeting. Promoting affordable housing opportunities and sharing information on Haitian institutions were two of the top priorities, Rockingster recalled.
James Joseph, a Flatbush resident who works as a nurse, said in a July 6 interview that cost of living continues to outpace salaries in the neighborhood.
“That means that nurses, respiratory therapists, those people, those middle class teachers, they suffer,” Joseph said.
He pointed to a trend of large real estate companies purchasing homes, then significantly increasing the price. The rising cost of living has forced many working people to share apartment space in order to make ends meet.
“If only one person (in a household) is working, you are in trouble,” he added.
In Miami’s Little Haiti, another neighborhood that is gentrifying, the social services nonprofit Family Action Network Movement (FANM) has addressed affordable housing by organizing community meetings. Executive director Marleine Bastien said the meetings help disseminate educational information on housing rights and encourage homeowners to hold onto their homes. With COVID-19, the organization has worked to establish a framework for sharing information with community members via text message.
While creating a directory of Haitian businesses and institutions could help promote Little Haiti’s assets to the general public, no such list existed on the Little Haiti BK website as of July 12.
Partners in the Little Haiti coalition have sought to celebrate Haitian history and culture through events. They even hired a staff member months ago to help with these efforts, although this staff member was let go in March, due to the pandemic.
A Toussaint L’Ouverture Symposium and Small Business Expo planned for April was canceled. Plans for a film festival in June and a Taste of Haiti event at Brooklyn College were also canceled due to COVID-19.
In addition to impacting events, the pandemic has also affected individual businesses in Little Haiti, forcing personal care services to close, while restaurants limited their services to take-out and delivery.
Lesly Jean, an owner of Bebe Fritay, a restaurant chain with locations in Little Haiti, said business has been less stable than it was before the pandemic.
“Because of the coronavirus, it’s a problem, they don’t come like they used to,” Jean said of his customers.
Some businesses in Little Haiti that have been forced to close may not reopen, Bichotte told The Haitian Times. To assist businesses, her office has issued a COVID-19 newsletter with resources on coronavirus testing, funding and other items. Bichotte also highlighted her efforts to host conference calls for businesses.
“I have brought guests from the Mayor’s office, NYC Small Business Services, the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce and TruFund together to advise businesses in our community. TruFund has even extended grants to some of our local businesses, and they are working to direct funds from the NY Forward Loan Program to minority-owned small businesses in the district. I also continue to be a vocal advocate for funding for our district at the state level,” Bichotte added.
Contending with economic forces
Long before the pandemic hit, Haitian business owners have been dealing with forces that threaten the ethnic character of the neighborhood.
Beldor used to run her beauty salon at 1624 Nostrand Avenue. But she left the location soon after the building owner asked for $4,500 ‒ more than double what she was paying before September 2018, the month her lease was ending.
“And you have your own rent to pay for your apartment, and you have to pay the light bill, gas bill, phone bill, and you have to eat,” said Beldor, who does not currently have a storefront.
Rockingster, who along with Beldor is a board member of the FS Nostrand Avenue Merchant Association, said that 10 to 15 years ago, people of Haitian ancestry owned 80 percent of the buildings on Nostrand Avenue. Now, that number stands at about 20 percent.
“Back then more Haitian people owned their building on Nostrand Avenue, but now they’re not really Haitian people, other people own the buildings,” Beldor said.
The broader economic forces at work in the neighborhood have a racial component, as primarily white developers increasingly purchase property in a neighborhood that is still predominantly Black.
“How do you stop someone from selling his property when you have an offer that’s more than double what the market price is? Economic forces are extremely difficult to manage,” Rockingster said.
Similar forces have been at work for years in Miami’s Little Haiti district. Bastien helped organize the effort to formally designate the district for years.
After more than a decade and a half of organizing, she said, the city gave its official designation for the area in 2016. The area had already been a hub of Haitian business, life and culture for many years.
But some businesses, including those that have been in the neighborhood for decades, are being forced out.
“They were forced out because developers were buying land, they came with a lot of cash,” Bastien said.
Miami officials have already approved a development called the Magic City Innovation District, which includes plans for an 18-acre cluster of high-rise apartments, shops and offices in the heart of Little Haiti. These plans have stoked fears that future development could erase the cultural character of the neighborhood, which has long been a home for working-class Haitians.
Residents of Little Haiti have also grown aware of a different dynamic, that makes Little Haiti an ideal spot for new development. The neighborhood is located on relatively high land compared to the rest of Miami, set about 10 feet above sea level.
“We’ve been losing, as a matter of fact, because of climate gentrification and the land grabs,” Bastien said.
In New York City, some efforts to maintain the ethnic character and affordability of neighborhoods have been relatively successful. In the 1960s, the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association (CCBA), composed of chambers of commerce, merchants and families in Manhattan’s Chinatown, played an instrumental role in the purchase of about 60 buildings in the neighborhood’s core.
Property ownership by those who have a close stake in the neighborhood has been a key element of preserving affordability, amid the furious pace of development and rising rents that have characterized Manhattan.
“Those organizations (that) own the buildings really stabilize our community,” said Justin Yu, CCBA president. “Most of the organizations (that) own the buildings have a rent stabilized unit upstairs, and downstairs they rent out for commercial use,” he said.
But Yu also acknowledged that maintaining affordability has been “very, very difficult.” He added that rising property taxes have contributed to higher rents, which have begun to force some residents out over the past decade.
Speaking about the Little Haiti project in central Brooklyn, he suggested that buildings which have fallen into disuse ‒ particularly those owned by the city ‒ are good candidates for Haitian organizations to purchase and revitalize, for commercial or community purposes.
Community leaders like Bastien have encouraged residents in Miami’s Little Haiti to keep their homes in the family, instead of selling to developers. She encourages older homeowners to put their homes under their children’s names.
“We also get in touch with them to let them know, ‘do not sell. Your parents sacrificed themselves to buy this home, maintain your home.’ And we offer to assist them, to support them,” she said, in reference to ongoing home maintenance issues.
Future developments in Little Haiti
At its outset, part of the promise of Little Haiti included the opportunity to create a cultural center and obtain funding for business and cultural initiatives. Future plans also involve the creation of a business improvement district (BID).
With buy-in from commercial tenants and property owners, creating a BID can take between 18 months and two years, according to Rachel Meltzer, an associate professor at The New School, who also chairs the institution’s public and urban policy master’s degree program.
While larger BIDs on the scale of Times Square tend to increase property values, most smaller BIDs do not have a significant impact on property values. But a community cannot form a BID without buy-in from property owners, said Meltzer, who has conducted research and field work on BIDs.
“If you have so much diversity among the properties, in terms of the services they provide and the kinds of properties … big, small, highly valued, you know, if there’s more diversity, it’s harder to form a BID, just because the interests are so varied,” Meltzer said.
In her experience, property owners are generally supportive of BIDs. But depending on their level of involvement in the community, she added, getting their attention can be a challenge.
In the absence of a formal BID ‒ which typically involves a small levy on property owners for streetscaping, neighborhood beautification and capital improvements ‒ grants from organizations like New York City’s Small Business Services (SBS) department can fund placemaking initiatives, Meltzer said. Placemaking can involve the hanging of banners, flags and other themed decorations in a neighborhood or business district.
While Rockingster said funding applications for placemaking have been unsuccessful so far, Councilmember Louis’ office allocated $20,000 to support cultural programming in Little Haiti, during fiscal year 2020.
The money was to go toward maintaining a staff member and planning events for 2020 that were canceled due to COVID-19. Leftover money could fund Christmas lighting on Nostrand Avenue later this year, according to Rockingster.
State assembly bill A10060A, sponsored by Bichotte, would rename the Newkirk Avenue rapid transit station the “Newkirk Avenue – Little Haiti” station. The bill had not yet come up for a floor vote in the assembly as of July 12.
Bichotte’s office did not provide specific details regarding plans for a cultural center and cited the pandemic as an obstacle to planning.
“We want to provide resources to the immigrant community, create a cultural center, do streetscaping and make Little Haiti a destination for immigrants and New Yorkers alike. Some of these plans are taking a little more time to move along because the pandemic has taken front seat. All our resources right now are going to the front lines, to help the people in our neighborhood, many who are essential workers, combat COVID-19 and its effects,” Sabrina Rezzy, a spokesperson for Assemblymember Bichotte, said in an email.
Rockingster emphasized that seeing some of these changes will take time.
“It’s important to know that the organization’s only two years old. There’s not much that can happen, because everything we want to do, it takes a while to implement and even longer to manifest,” he said.
Meanwhile, some businesspeople see little relief from the impacts of rising rent.
“I don’t see (any) help on that, because if you cannot pay what they want you to pay, you have to give them the place,” Beldor said.